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Analysts: Postwar Afghan Political Landscape Unclear

  • Gary Thomas

In a speech on July 4th marking his takeover as the new U.S. and allied military commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David Petraeus vowed to achieve victory. But what will victory in Afghanistan look like? Our correspondent reports, it might not be clear-cut.

In 1992, anti-Soviet mujahedin fighters - some of whom now are members of the Taliban - toppled the communist government of President Najibullah and took Kabul. Similarly, the Northern Alliance defeated the Taliban government in 2001 to set the stage for President Hamid Karzai and his government.

But most analysts say the current Afghan conflict will not end in the same way, but in some kind of power sharing with at least some segments of the Taliban insurgency. They say that process has already begun with the Karzai government's efforts to pursue reconciliation with some Afghan Taliban elements.

Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute of Peace here in Washington says the result might be an Afghanistan that looks something like Lebanon.

"If you want to negotiate a solution, you have to ask on what basis would that solution be negotiated," said Daniel Serwer. "And then one possible option, obviously, in those negotiations is to allow the Taliban to govern at the local level in part of Afghanistan. And that's what leads you in the direction of a Hezbollah-type solution, where Hezbollah governs de facto in parts of Lebanon."

David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency specialist who has been an advisor to General Petreaus in Iraq and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, points out that Hezbollah functions as a political entity in Lebanon and as a terrorist organization.

Kilcullen says that in Afghanistan, a negotiated settlement to the conflict can be expected.

"There's nothing wrong with negotiating," said David Kilcullen. "Most successful counterinsurgencies end with a negotiated solution. But you've got to negotiate from a position of strength, and we're not in a position of strength right now where we can negotiate with parts of the Taliban and al-Qaida syndicate, and they see us as the strong horse and are willing to leave their allegiance to al-Qaida leadership or to the Quetta shura [or council] and are willing to be part of a negotiation and reintegration process."

President Barack Obama has set next July as a date to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, if conditions on the ground permit. U.S. officials say they hope that Afghan forces, particularly the army, will be ready to at least begin to shoulder the security burden by then.

But national security expert Larry Goodson at the U.S. Army War College says public pronouncements of even a tentative timetable presents problems.

"It's very difficult if you decide that you have to negotiate from a position of strength to do anything militarily that will put you there when there is a timetable issue and the clock is ticking increasingly loudly because everyone is anticipating a withdrawal, unless you're prepared to, as it were, really take the gloves off and do all sorts of things to people, which means that you're then the moral equivalent of the Soviets or the Mongols, maybe," said Larry Goodson.

Reports of substantive negotiations between the Karzai government and the Taliban have not been confirmed. And the Taliban says it will not talk as long as foreign troops are in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban has already been setting up local administration in areas where the central government has no power and where there is no significant challenge from international forces.

Larry Goodson says today's Taliban has a more long-term outlook than the first-generation Taliban that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

"Think back to the early Taliban," he said. "They were the worst governors in the world. They couldn't do anything. They didn't want to do anything. They didn't care. Now all of a sudden you've got guys out there trying to actually fill a gap that has been there because of the bad performance of the Karzai government."

David Kilcullen of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security says that as Iran backs Hezbollah to exert influence in Lebanon, Pakistan supports the Taliban to maintain a foothold in Afghanistan.

"There's a habit in Pakistan of using militants as a tool for foreign policy, and we've seen this over a generation in Pakistan," he said. "And it's not something that you can just give up overnight in part because of habit, but also because these people are now out there and what are you going to do? Are you going to walk away from your relationship with them? They're just going to go rogue [unchecked]. So I think that that's one reason that people continue to support the Afghan Taliban."

Analysts say India has made increasingly assertive bids to exert its influence in Afghanistan, which, Kilcullen says, has made neighboring Pakistan very nervous.

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